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Marc Maron asks the tough questions... to himself

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The funny thing about Marc Maron's current moment in the spotlight after twentysomething years in the comedy business is that it hinges on other people being as openly confessional as he is. His show, WTF, is one of the most popular podcasts among the comedy-enthusiast set, and some of the program's more confrontational interviews over its history--an evasive Carlos Mencia, an estranged Louis C.K., and a defensive Gallagher (who was the show's first mid-interview walkout)--provided enough memorable highlights to make it an incendiary, unpredictable must-hear. But while Maron's needling, sometimes antagonistic interview style is purposefully meant to get deeper at the inner workings of his subjects, it's also a side effect of the way he's carried himself through a long, often-thwarted comedy career: one man coming to terms with his mistakes.

[jump] One of the first mistakes he remarked upon during Thursday night's at Rick Bronson's House of Comedy was his set-opening bewilderment at doing a show at the Mall of America. After a couple minutes goofing on the garish Michael Birawer backdrop, the intro video filled with sports highlights set to Motley Crüe's "Too Fast for Love," and the venue's apparent lack of a real ceiling, he admitted that putting so much emphasis on feeling uncomfortable in the venue he was booked to perform for an entire weekend was a potentially self-destructive act.

The next hour-plus of material proved just how far he could take those notions of self-destructive tendencies, while still remaining more in the realm of the stressed-out everyman than a recovering-addict showbiz-casualty comic. That there was always this undercurrent of quick-thinking tension behind the material--even the stuff about the differences between "cat people" and "dog people" that hackier comedians live and die on--gave him the feel of a man who had gotten so adept at questioning other people because he spent a lot of time questioning himself.

Maron's neuroses came through like the side effects of being a sort of human wreck, someone who carries enough guilt to believe that other people's flaws are not only outweighed by his own, but the product of his own malfunctioning psyche. A few of his bigger laughs came at the expense of others: a female fan who turned a request for a "fuckfest" into a stalkerish campaign to move to L.A. so they could be together; a sartorially confused Brooklynite whose handlebar mustache, fedora and jodhpurs made him appear as though he had "been chased backwards through a time tunnel"; the stammering, bewildered TSA agent who gave him an awkward thanks after patting him down.

The most illuminating material involved Maron attempting to deal with his preconceptions of others, and what it meant when those preconceptions were proven wrong. At one point, he recollected a standup show he did a few years ago where he kept noticing a surly-looking, unsmiling tough-guy biker type in the audience. His instinct was to extrapolate his idea of what the biker was thinking during the set--mostly hateful things centering around anti-Semitic sentiments. When the biker came up after the show and complimented him for a great performance, Maron's realization that the hateful version of this guy actually had permanent residence inside his head made for one of those psychological revelations that doubles as a sympathetic cringe-humor punchline.

After all this, Maron couldn't help but jab at his own onstage persona a bit, which, in this case, actually meant referring to it as an onstage persona instead of a confessional extension of who he is. (During his attempts to shrug off the veil and reveal himself as a completely-together guy, he claimed "I'm athletic... I know algebra.")

But knowing the joke behind that statement means knowing his history of self-sabotage (including a now-kicked drug habit and a contentious series of disputes with former employer Air America), crossed with a certain professional pride that leaves little room for friend-making compromise. That Maron's been able to work his way through it in a way that gives plenty of opportunity for empathetic humor attests to just how underappreciated and necessary a comedian he is, and, in his terms, that means he follows a line of great Jewish magicians (Harry Houdini, David Copperfield, Jesus). At the end of his set, he described his own David Blaine-topping escape act: sitting in his hotel room and attempting to escape his own head for three hours. "Ta da!"

Marc Maron appears at Rick Bronson's House of Comedy on Friday, February 10 and Saturday, February 11 at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., and Sunday, February 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15-$19. For tickets call 952.858.8558 or visit www.houseofcomedy.net.